Chapter VIII. The First Bishop of Calcutta, 1815-1822
Period.--England: King William IV. India: Struggle with the Mahrattas and the extension of British rule.
References.--Life of the Right Reverend Thomas Fanshaw Middleton, by the Rev. Charles Webb Le Bas; History of Christianity in India, by the Rev. J. Hough, vol. v.
IN describing somewhat fully the lives of the first four Bishops of Calcutta, it must be remembered that nearly all the more important events of Church History during that period are connected closely with them. Hence it is true to say that when reading their lives we are getting a fairly correct idea of the Church life of that period.
On November 28,1815, Dr. Thomas Fanshaw Middleton, the first Bishop of Calcutta, arrived in India. His appointment had not been made without considerable difficulty. When the charter of the East India Company was being renewed in the year 1813, strong endeavours were made by a section of the Church in England to have a Bishopric established in Calcutta. Strange to say, these endeavours met with the sternest opposition in the House of Commons. There were many who said that it would seriously offend the religious prejudices of the people of India. One retired official even went so far as to state that it might lead to a rising. The Bill establishing the Bishopric of Calcutta was eventually passed through the House of Commons, largely through the eloquence of Wilberforce, who spoke three and a half hours on the subject. When finally passed, it made provision for a Bishop of Calcutta as well as for Archdeacons for Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras.
The salary of the Bishop of Calcutta was fixed at £5000; that of the three Archdeacons, £2000 each. If to some people a salary of £5000 seems excessive, it must be borne in mind that at this time the salary of the Chief Justice of Calcutta was £10,000, and that of the other Judges £7000. The Bishop too had to pay for the rent of his house, which at that time in Calcutta meant something between £600 and £700 a year. The rents of Calcutta houses have always been consistently high.
The first Bishop had been educated at Christ's Hospital and afterwards at Pembroke College, Cambridge. At the University he distinguished himself more as a mathematician than a classic, which is all the more remarkable as his name as a scholar is connected with his Treatise on the use of the Greek Article in the New Testament. He had been led to undertake a special study of this subject in connection with a theological controversy which bore on the question of our Blessed Lord's Divinity.
Before coming to India he had been Archdeacon of Huntingdon and Vicar of St. Pancras. While at St. Pancras he had made great efforts to build a large Parish Church, but the Bill in Parliament to raise money for the scheme did not pass, and it was left to his successor to carry through the scheme successfully. While in England Bishop Middleton had always been a devoted supporter of the S.P.C.K.--a devotion which continued during the whole of his time in India.
On his voyage to India the Bishop seriously reflected about his future and laid down certain rules of life which are well worth remembering:--
"Invoke Divine aid, preach frequently as one having authority; promote schools, charities, literature, and good taste; persevere against discouragement; keep your temper; keep up a close connection with the friends at home; maintain dignity without appearance of pride; be not forward to assign reasons to those who have no right to demand them; observe grave economy in domestic affairs; remember what is expected in England; remember the final account."
On Christmas Day the Bishop preached his first sermon in St. John's, the New Church, which was for the next thirty years to be the Cathedral Church of Calcutta. Thirteen hundred people were present. He spoke of himself as coming to India, as Titus went to Crete, "to set in order the things that are wanting." He stated that in primitive days Episcopacy was at once the bond of unity and the safeguard of truth. The collection was £750 and was for the poor. One hundred and sixty persons communicated.
When starting on his work, almost the first thing which he noticed was the shortage of Clergy. The total number of Chaplains for troops and civilians in India was then only thirfcy-two, of whom fifteen were in Bengal, twelve in Madras, and five in Bombay. Of the Bombay Chaplains all save one were sick during the Bishop's visit to that place. As a result large numbers of civilians in India never saw a clergyman during the whole of their service. Marriages, Burials, and Baptisms had to be administered by lay people; Churches there were hardly any.
The Bishop was clearly disappointed at his public reception when he first arrived in Calcutta, though his private reception from friends of the Church was all that could be desired. The same spirit which had prevented the sermon preached at his Consecration being published had clearly passed on to India, though it is possible that the absence of the Governor-General from Calcutta, owing to the war with Nepal, was partly responsible for this chilling entry to his new life.
Sitting down to contemplate the situation before him, he soon discovered some great imperfections in his Letters Patent. Formed on the home ecclesiastical system, these Letters Patent authorised him to exercise full ecclesiastical power over all Chaplains and Ministers of the Church of England within his diocese, to whom he was directed to grant licences to officiate. As, however, all Chaplains sent out by the Company came out with the licences of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, they had received their authority before arriving in India from a higher source than the Bishop of Calcutta. On arrival they also received their appointments to their stations from their Local Governments. The fact, therefore, that he had neither power to license them nor to appoint them to their various stations, certainly made his position extremely difficult. He appealed to the Supreme Government on these questions, and it agreed with him that all authority over his Clergy, whether of licensing or appointing to stations, should be in his hands. Certain Local Governments, however, objected to this on the grounds that it interfered with some of their privileges. The matter was referred home, and the Court of Directors ordered the Supreme Government in India to rescind their resolution. This was a great blow to Bishop Middleton, which he felt very keenly.
One of his first acts on arrival was to appoint Archdeacons to Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras, and to regulate their duties. A keen educationalist, he soon improved greatly the famous Free Schools in Calcutta, and by his efforts made the work of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge a living power in India.
Within a few months of his arrival he started on a long visitation tour of his diocese in South and Western India which lasted twelve months. Everywhere he went, his Confirmations were attended by large numbers of candidates. In Madras he consecrated St. George's Church, which is now the Cathedral of Madras. He regarded it as much finer than most of the Parish Churches in England. From Madras he moved onwards to Tanjore, Tinnevelly, and then across into Travancore. He was greatly struck by the spiritual destitution of the English residents in certain places. After leaving Travancore, he journeyed by sea to Bombay, where he spent four months. In July 1816 he consecrated St. Thomas's Church, Bombay, just one hundred and two years after it had been completed. On his return journey to Calcutta, he visited Goa and spent some time in Ceylon. He seems to have enjoyed his visit to Ceylon more than anything else in his life in the East.
In 1818 he launched his scheme for the building of Bishop's College in Calcutta for the education of Indian Clergy from all parts of India. It was this scheme with which Bishop Middleton's name will always be associated. Large sums of money were given towards the starting of the institution. In response to the Bishop's appeal, King William IV. was approached and graciously issued a Royal letter authorising collections throughout England. The appeal was most successful, as over £50,000 was realised. The Church Missionary Society gave £5000, the Bible Society another £5000, and the S.P.G. yet another. The site selected was at Sibpur, near the East India Company's Botanical Garden. The architect was a Mr. Jones. The plans adopted were like those of an English University College. The objects of the College were defined by the Bishop in the following terms:--
(1) To instruct native and other Christians in the doctrine and discipline of the Church, in order to their becoming preachers, catechists, and schoolmasters.
(2) For teaching the elements of useful knowledge and the English language to Musalmans and Hindus, having no object in such attainment beyond secular knowledge.
(3) For translating the Scriptures, the Liturgy, and moral and religious tracts
(4) For the reception of English Missionaries to be sent out by the S.P.G. on their first arrival in India.
The foundations of the College were laid on December 15, 1820. While the building was rising the Bishop was constantly visiting it, and it was a visit to it paid during the hot part of the day which was mainly responsible for his death.
Twice during his Episcopate he visited Bombay, and on both occasions spent some considerable time in Travancore. He took a deep interest in the work of the Syrian Church, and was altogether opposed to anything like proselytising, or using influence to alter its ancient customs and Liturgy. Hough, in his History of Christianity in India, contrasts the aetion of Bishop Middleton in this respect with the action of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Goa, de Menezes, who did everything in his power to stamp out this ancient national Church by destroying its books and endeavouring to make all its Clergy conform to Rome.
Bishop Middleton's powers were in some respects strangely limited. He was unable to ordain a native of India, or even an East Indian.
His attitude towards the licensing of our Church Missionaries as distinct from Chaplains seems to most of us to-day decidedly strange. He held that authority had been granted to him only over those Clergy who had been sent out by the Court of Directors, and that he had not been given the authority to grant licences to other Clergy. Much though he desired to do so towards the end of his Episcopate, he felt that the Court of Directors were under a distinct obligation to send out a sufficient number of Clergy to care for the English people in India, and that if the Missionary Clergy, who came out primarily for the conversion of the natives of India, were to be licensed by him for English work, which was the only work he was entitled to license them for, then the Court of Directors would think that it was unnecessary for them to send out the number of Clergy they needed. He felt his difficulty very keenly on this matter, and it is clear from his writings that he was not altogether satisfied with the line he took. He says of the Missionary Clergy, "If I should forbid them to preach in English while so many European congregations are without any Pastor, it will excite horror and hatred both of my person and my office. In fact, it could not be done with a clear conscience. The Missionaries preach where there are no Chaplains, and without their ministrations considerable bodies of Christians would be without the ordinances of religion: they are, in fact, doing what our Propagation of the Gospel Society's Missionaries were sent to do in America; and what would be the effect if the Bishop were to interfere to deprive any Christian congregation of the means of attending the services of the Church? Explanation would be impossible: it would be generally believed that I was adverse to the progress of Christianity, whatever might be my professions."
We must remember, before criticising some of the actions of Bishop Middleton, that he was called to the onerous task of clearing the ground and laying foundations of the Church of England in India. He felt very keenly the difficulty of his position. "The difficulties and mortifications which I have to encounter," so he wrote, "are sometimes almost too much for me." Bishop Middleton was very anxious to increase the number of Churches in India, and unquestionably his Episcopate was fruitful in this respect. The building of Churches was started at various places. He held very strongly that all Christian Churches should have either towers or steeples, so as to make them stand out conspicuously as witnesses of the Christian Faith.
Bishop Middleton's Episcopate lasted for just nine years, and his early death in July 1822 was caused far more by worry and anxiety than by the Indian climate. He was a man of a nervously excitable temper, intensely solicitous for the success of his exertions, and liable to depression from unreasonable and vexatious opposition. His thirst for knowledge was insatiable, and to the end he kept up his study of Greek literature. He was a dignified and kindly man, though inclined to be unbending. At times he took up an attitude of excessive dignity which was misunderstood, and one cannot help f eeling that to a certain extent he created some of his own difficulties. Dr. Barnes, the Archdeacon of Bombay, writing of him, says: "It would be scarcely reasonable to expect another so great and so good a man as Dr. Middleton, at once a scholar and divine who from conscientious motives was firmly attached to the Church. He lived in very difficult times and supported the Church's interest with firmness and judgment. His only fault was something of a high carriage in his public demeanour which gave an unfavourable impression to many. Unfortunately he had no sound legal adviser, when legal advice would have been of the greatest benefit to him. He was a powerful preacher. He sacrificed literary eminence and effort to come to India." Fearing any temptation to earthly fame, he had all his manuscripts destroyed at his death. In a little poem written shortly before his death he says:
"May life's brief remnant all be Thine,
And when Thy sure decree
Bids me this fleeting breath resign,
Oh speed my soul to Thee!"